A Biblical Anachronism?

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Movies that take place in the past always run the risk of including some sort of  unintentional anachronism – that is, a chronological inconsistency.  For example, in this famous scene from the 1985 film, Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea Dance where his parents first met on a Gibson ES-345 guitar that wasn’t introduced until 1958. (1)  This is usually the result of poor research by a prop department or a lack of availability of something of the era.  More often than not, the general population doesn’t notice the flaw because most of us wouldn’t know a) what model guitar that was and b) when it came out.  And, quite frankly, most don’t care either.

Most.

There are always a few folks who do notice and do care, and so lists like Mental Floss’ “15 Obvious Movie Anachronisms” are published and the general public giggles at both those who notice such things and the multi-billion dollar movie industry that can’t spend the five minutes checking these things out.

If people don’t care about anachronisms in movies, I’m certain that nobody at all reads their Bibles looking for the same.  Yet, here I am, that one weirdo, who always struggles with the disciples initial reaction to seeing Jesus in the story of Jesus walking on water, which we will hear read on Sunday.  The NRSV renders it this way.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.”

Every time I read that part of the story, I wonder to myself, “did first century Jews believe in ghosts?”  It is well established that thoughts about the afterlife were still very much in flux in first century Judaism.  The Pharisees, Jesus’ main adversaries in Matthew (and another anachronism, but that’s for another post), believed in resurrection, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8), while the Sadducees didn’t believe in any of those things.  Further complicating the issue is that the word translated as “ghost” in the NRSV is a hapax legomenon in the Canon of Scripture.  It appears twice in the Gospels, but it seems Matthew took it directly from Mark when he brought this story into his Gospel.  Thayer tells us that the word is common in Greek literature, appearing in Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and others.  In Greek, it seems to mean something more like a supernatural appearance, which flows well from its Hebrew equivalent that connotes a vision.

Did the disciples believe in ghosts?  I can’t be sure.  Certainly, they experienced Jesus on the water as something supernatural, something they would not normally expect to see, something worth being scared witless over, but I wonder if our 21st century understanding of ghosts (see Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Witness, and Scooby Doo) create an anachronism in the story that clouds our understanding in an unhelpful way.  Or, maybe I’ve just fallen down another infamous Steve Pankey rabbit hole.  Either way, there’s another 500 words for you to ponder.


NB. If you are an astute reader of this blog, you’ll note that I wrote on this topic, with much more certainty, three years ago.  I only realized it when I saw that “Ghosts” was a tag I had used before.  But that’s why you read, isn’t it?  To see what new useless thing I’ll glom on to next.

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It is a ghost!

As a child of the 80s, I am obliged to be a big fan of the Ghostbusters movies.  I’m even getting excited that an all-female reboot is being discussed as a possible Ghostbusters 3, though the lack of Harold Ramis is tempering that a bit.  For all my love for the Ghostbusters movies, I’ve never been real big on other forms of paranormal activity.  I don’t like scary movies, Casper the Friendly Ghost has always felt hokey to me, and the rash of ghost spotting shows that are just people whispering in the dark that hit reality TV in the last 5 years or so leave a lot to be desired.  Being a paranormal skeptic and one who subscribes to the Orthodox view of angels (that we don’t become one when we die), I’ve always found the response of Jesus’ disciples to his walking on water to be peculiar.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.”

The Greek word provides perhaps the best transliteration in all of Scripture, phantasma, which means apparition or specter.  N.T. (Tom) Wright has a short article on the various understanding of the afterlife in first century Greek and Jewish philosophy.  In it, he suggests that ghostly visitations were an understood part of life in Greek culture.  It makes sense then, that the disciples, living in a highly Hellenized Israel would have had it in their minds to even consider Jesus walking on the water as a ghost.  It follows then, that their reaction, being terrified and crying out in fear, makes sense.  Of course, even if they didn’t believe in ghosts, the night and the water would have been enough to have their nerves on the edge anyway.

As I ponder the reaction of the disciples, I can’t help but think of those times in my own life when despite my faith in God and his divine providence, I’ve been terrified.  Certainly not of ghosts, mind you, but of any number of other silly things: exams, job interviews, asking my wife to marry me, moving to Foley, becoming a dad.  It seems as though fear continues to be a part of normal life, even when we claim our faith in Christ.  Perhaps that’s why “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” was a part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  We will find ourselves tempted to choose fear over faith.  We don’t have to look very far to see evil at work in the world.  We are rightly terrified from time to time, but then Jesus calls out, “Take courage!” or “Take heart!” or “Cheer up!  I’m here, you need not be afraid.”